Danny B was a fine American pacer who raced until he was 13, with career earnings of nearly $US500,000. He crossed the Pacific for a stud career in New Zealand, where he fell victim to neglect. Neil Clarkson explains how their lives were drawn together.
The emaciated figure of standardbred stallion Danny B walked gingerly into my life on his neglected and broken hooves during a mild autumn day in 2010.
My most powerful memory of the day is not the sight of his appallingly thin body, his poor feet, patchy coat, or hopelessly matted mane.
As I led him along the driveway toward a yard prepared for his arrival, I saw his dull eyes spark momentarily into life. He soaked up his surroundings, spotted a mare, and let out a whinny.
That tiny spark of energy made me even more determined to help him recover.
It was a close-run thing.
Danny B could easily and justifiably have been euthanised when seized from a manure-filled ramshackle shed on a property on the outskirts of Christchurch, but veterinarian Hamish Ranken decided to give him a chance.
I placed Danny in the pen with hay and water, and a small amount of grass, but the spark had already retreated from his eyes. Before long, he was standing in the corner head-weaving.
One might question the ability of any horse to recover from such a poor state. Ranken had assessed him with a body score of zero on the Carroll and Huntington body-score system.
But Danny B is no ordinary standardbred, and no ordinary stallion. He is an American champion from impeccable breeding.
He was a formidable pacer who raced until he was 13. His record shows he had a phenomenal 336 starts for 55 wins, 51 second placings and 50 third placings.
His stakes earnings totalled $US462,979. That was back in the days when the greenback had a great deal more value than it does today.
As a seven-year-old, he ran an impressive career-best mile time of 1 minute 51.2 seconds.
The son of the renowned stallion Albatross ran his last race on March 7, 2003. He then left the United States for a stud career in New Zealand.
It is fair to say that his stud career did not reflect his track achievements.
One can only speculate as to how it unfolded, but in March of 2010 animal welfare officers with the SPCA found him alone, standing in manure, in an old shed, with no feed and a bucket of water described as filthy.
One of the two brothers later charged with his neglect was asked by an SPCA officer why Danny was kept in such a manner. “He was unhandle-able. What could I do?” was the tenor of his reply.
Danny was seized and, within hours, was under foster care on our North Canterbury property.
I was at work when my wife, Robin, called from Southland. She had been spending a great deal of time down south helping with the care of her ailing father.
The SPCA had unexpectedly found Danny during an operation in Halswell, she explained, and were seeking a foster home. We agreed we could manage it, and little more than an hour later I was at home preparing part of our grassed cattle yard for him.
Around midday, he stepped from the horse transporter.
He spent his first night – a mild one – in the yards. Stabling him was not an option, with his tendency to head weave. Fresh air and sunshine was the order of the day.
The next day we got down to business. I was on edge at the prospect of taking a stallion I knew virtually nothing about and giving him an iodine wash. I saw the manure caked on his lower legs and knew I would need to deal with that, too.
I prepared the iodine wash, led him out of the yards, tied him up, and his sponge bath began. He stood well. I hosed him off, and he stood like the seasoned racehorse he was.
I was confident enough to lather him up again, and got down and scrubbed the manure from his legs.
Next was his mane. I brushed it out, but had to cut off the worst of his dreadlocks.
The worst of his feet were soon attended to, pending the arrival of a farrier.
He got a few minutes of grass in the round pen before being returned to the cattle yards.
Danny cost me a good deal of sleep in those first few weeks. I lay awake in bed worrying about whether I was feeding him too much, or too little.
Feeding a horse in such poor condition is a risky business. I feared overloading his digestive system and sparking a potentially fatal case of colic.
Three times a day, I would give him his modest rations, move his break a little to give him just a little more grass, and top up his water and hay.
He ate out the cattle yards in a few days and then it was on to the larger round pen. When that grass was gone, he was moved into the pasture that would become his home.
As Danny was settling in, Robin contacted Colin Price, from Mitavite, for advice on what feed he would recommend for a horse in such condition.
He volunteered to provide Danny with some bags of Breeda, an amino acid supplement, and an oil supplement. Over the following weeks, we ramped up the size of his three meals a day.
Mitavite donated $800 in feed and supplements in those first few months, at a time when Danny so desperately needed it.
He was doing well. He was thin, but his coat was glistening in the sun within a couple of weeks. Even when turned out on more grass, he seemed to like to keep his hay intake up.
He seemed to instinctively know what he needed. As the weeks rolled on, it was Danny who moved to eating more grass and less hay.
Dentist Alan Vliet Vlieland sorted his teeth, which he said were in poor condition.
He had arrived with a body score of zero. It emerged during the trial that Ranken had body-scored Danny at 2.5 about two and a half months after his arrival – a very encouraging improvement.
Two days after Danny had arrived, the mild temperatures had given way to cooler days and nights. I immediately covered him, taking it off only when the day temperatures were mild.
Winter was not far away and the cover eventually became a permanent fixture.
I felt his ribs most days, at his evening meal, removing it only occasionally to check properly on his progress.
It was around seven weeks after his arrival that I led him into the round pen and removed his cover to photograph him. I left the arena and picked up my camera as he launched into an exuberant double-barrelled kick into the air. As I raised the camera I could see him swinging his head towards his right shoulder, with teeth bared.
When he turned around, he revealed a sizeable wound on his shoulder, precisely at the point where some old scarring had been evident.
Hamish duly arrived and assured me it looked worse than it was, but there began a daily ritual. The cover went back on and I washed the wound twice a day with saline solution and kept it clean. It healed over in a couple of months without incident.
Danny, it transpires, was a self mutilator. We tried for a time to have his cover off in warmer weather, but it was not to be.
On his first Christmas Eve with us, he opened up another good wound, but not quite as bad as the first time.
Most of the time he just picked at his side, much like a chronic nailbiter who cannot help himself.
He mostly did just enough damage to cause a little bleeding or swelling. Inevitably, there was the risk of infection. At one point he developed a haematoma which quickly became infected. Danny had to be sedated
so Hamish could clean it up.
In the end, the only long-term solution was permanent covering – a summer rug and a winter rug – as he could not be permitted to keep picking at this side.
On a brighter note, his head-weaving gradually diminished to the point where we haven’t seen him do it for at least a year.
The months turned into a year. Then two years. Jill Dickie, for the SPCA, was a regular visitor to check on his progress.
Danny proved adept at keeping on weight, except when our other horses got too close, when he would incessantly run his fence line. The easiest solution was to always keep a paddock between Danny and our other horses.
Danny had faced and overcome all odds, in my view.
As fate would have it, as the end of 2012 rolled closer, I was to face a challenge of my own.
On December 1, I went outside shortly before lunch to work on a fence. A jolt in the centre of my chest stopped me in my tracks. The pain gripped and tightened. I headed inside, hoping that it was bad indigestion, but it was not to be.
It was quickly apparent I was having a heart attack. That afternoon a cardiologist sucked out a blood clot from my right coronary artery and fitted a stent. A week in hospital followed, during which I had two further stents fitted.
It had been a serious hit. The family rallied, but our circumstances had changed dramatically.
I had gone from being able to do just about anything around the farm to requiring an escort for a five-minute walk up the road.
About a week after coming home, Robin told me that she had contacted the SPCA and suggested that, under the circumstances, Danny needed another foster home. I was saddened by the news, but accepted it was the right thing to do.
Danny left for his new foster home as I was getting into my own much-needed rehabilitation.
My walking gradually increased and I got up to 4km.
A little over a month later, I told Robin I was going to start jogging the downhill bits. She stipulated I had to check in regularly by two-way radio.
I started jogging more, walking less, concentrating on a 6km course. I got up to running the entire course, except for the uphill sections.
The improvements kept coming and I eventually returned to my favourite 11.5km hill circuit, building my fitness to a level that was better than before the heart attack.
Danny had been away for 18 weeks when we learned that the SPCA was looking for another foster home for him. Did we know of anyone who could take a stallion, we were asked?
I told Robin I would like to take him back. She agreed, and a few days later he stepped off a truck and back into our lives. Within 30 seconds of returning to his familiar pasture he was eating grass.
In July of last year, the two brothers faced trial in the Christchurch District Court on charges laid over their treatment of Danny and other horses. In all, they faced 18 charges.
I managed to attend about half the trial.
I watched intently as the jury was shown a five-minute video that showed the sorry conditions in which Danny was kept in Halswell. I heard how he had been unable to muster the energy to walk from the dilapidated shed to the horse transporter, but rallied a little after receiving fresh water and some hay.
A newspaper reporter told me afterwards that some of the jurors had been in tears at the sight of Danny and several of the other horses. I had been too focused on the video to notice.
The Crown, it seemed to me, had a strong case, and at the end of the prosecution evidence the pair pleaded guilty to 12 of the charges.
The Crown withdrew the six others, in respect of horses that were body-scored at two at the time of the seizure operation.
The pleas had been the result of some discussion, part of which was an agreement to surrender the horses to the RSPCA.
Each fosterer of the horses undoubtedly have their own story.
Many of the younger stock had been started under saddle and potentially had fruitful lives ahead of them as riding horses. This gave many of the fosterers a chance to provide the animals with a permanent home.
On August 8, I signed the papers to formally adopt Danny, along with an older broodmare, Connie, who also needed a new home.
The last four and a half years have been quite an adventure for both of us. We’ve each had our ups and downs but, crucially, both got the help when we needed it most.
I kept running and last March was six weeks away from running my first half-marathon. My heart then suffered another meltdown, which put me in hospital for eight nights.
The electrical system was playing up and my heart’s ability to pump blood had diminished.
I returned home and gradually rallied again, but it would seem my running days are over.
Danny and I get on pretty well. He has mellowed a lot in the last 18 months.
I think he is starting to feel his age. There are boney arthritic changes apparent in some of his joints, no doubt a result of his long racing career. They do not cause him any lameness, but he certainly seems to prefer a quieter life.
Twice a day, I take him a meal and check on him. He tucks into it while I move his break to give him more grass.
The strong neck crest showing above his cover is a clear indication that there is plenty of horse lurking underneath.
I have a great deal of respect for this stallion. He had a truly impressive racing career and survived an ordeal that could easily have claimed his life.
Our property north of Christchurch is a long way from Pompano Park, in Florida, where much of his racing career unfolded, but I like to think that Danny is now home. I think he knows that, too.
A report on the sentencing in the case can be read here.